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The Temple of Janus

Numa Pompilius was the second King of Rome. Some time during his mythically long reign (715-673 BC), he built the Temple of Janus Geminus near the Forum. Although remodeled several times and even relocated once or twice, as originally built the temple was very small and rectangular, constructed of large roughly square stone blocks. According to the Sixth Century historian Procopius of Caesarea, who examined it personally, the temple was

. . . only large enough to cover the statue of Janus. Now this statue is of bronze, and not less than five cubits [7½ feet] high; in all other respects it resembles a man, but its head has two faces, one of which is turned toward the east and the other toward the west. And there are brazen doors fronting each face . . . .

Numa introduced the custom of keeping the doors of the temple open when Rome was at war, only closing them in times of peace. The symbolism is not clear; It may have meant that when the doors were open war was released or that when they were closed peace was secured.

Now in a notoriously belligerent age, in a very volatile region, the Romans were hardly pacifists. While records for many years are not very good, they seem to have been at war most of the time. So the temple gates were closed on only a few occasions, and we know of only a handful of those.

During the eras of the Kings (753-509 BC) and of the Republic (509-30 BC), the gates are reported to have been closed on only two occasions:

  • . 700 BC: Closed by King Numa himself, he being noted more for his religious and judicial skills than as a campaigner. How long the closure lasted is unknown.
  • 235 BC: By the Consuls Titus Manlius Torquatus and Gaius Atilius Bulbus, following the conquest of Sardinia. The doors were reopened the following year, when war broke out with the Ligurians.

Surprisingly, during the Empire the doors are known to have been closed rather more often:

  • Jan. 11, 29 BC: By Octavian (not yet Augustus) to mark the end of the Civil Wars (44-30 BC). The near contemporary soldier-historian Velleius Paterculus (19 BC-c. AD 31), tells us that this marked only the third occasion on which the doors had been closed. It’s not known how long they remained so.
  • 25 BC: By the now Emperor Augustus to mark the end of the Cantabrian War (29-25 BC), but it was soon reopened, as the Cantabrian rose up again, and the Salassians in the Alps, and then there were long campaigns against the Germans on the Rhine and the Danube and the Parthians in the East.
  • 11 BC: Yet again by Augustus, to mark the conclusion of the German campaigns of 13-11 BC by Nero Claudius Drusus, brother of the later Emperor Tiberius and father of the Emperor Claudius. This closing probably lasted no more than a year or so, as Germany soon again became a major theater of operations.
  • 9 BC: By decree of the Senate, upon completion of a massive campaign against the Germans by Drusus and Tiberius, the doors were scheduled to be closed, but before the ritual could be performed news arrived that the Dacians had begun raiding across the Danube from what is now Romania].
  • c. AD 65: The Emperor Nero issued coins heralding the imminent closing of the doors, but the ceremony did not take place due to the outbreak of the “First Jewish War” (66-70)].
  • AD 71: By the Emperor Vespasian, to mark the conclusion of the “Year of the Four Emperors ,” the Batavian Revolt, and the First Jewish War. The doors were probably opened again within a year, as revolts broke out in several provinces, including Asia and Britain.
  • c. AD 107: By the Emperor Trajan, having completed the conquest of Dacia, and with no wars in progress elsewhere in the Empire, a condition that may have lasted until about the beginning of 114, when he commenced his Parthian War.
  • c. AD 124: By the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138), who had a generally quiet reign, though there were military operations on several occasions during – notably on the Danube (117-118) and in Mauretania (123), and the Second Jewish War (132-136). So the doors were probably closed in 124, when Hadrian averted war with Parthia by careful diplomacy. When they were opened again is unknown.
  • c. AD 143: By the Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161), who had a remarkably peaceful reign. Some minor problems aside, the only major war was in Britain (139-143), which involved the suppression of some rebels, expulsion of Celtic invaders, and the extension of the frontier well into what is now Scotland, where the Antonine Wall was built. So it’s possible the doors were closed in 143, at the conclusion of this campaign. They may have remained closed for several years.
  • AD 192: The rather unreliable Historia Augusta reports that one of the omens preceding the murder of the maniacal Emperor Commodus on December 31st of 192 was “The twin doors of the Temple of Janus opened of their own accord,” which, if true, means they must have been closed some time earlier. The opening heralded the onset of a series of civil wars that lasted until 197.
  • c. AD 241, by the Emperor Gordian III (r. 238-244), probably after the suppression of a major revolt in Africa (240-241), as we know that the doors were reopened the following year, A.D. 242, when he undertook a war against the Persians.

These are apparently the only known occasions on which the doors to the Temple of Janus were closed. There certainly may have been other occasions as well, for there were periods when Rome was not at war, though specific information about the status of the temple doors has not survived. For example, available evidence indicates that the Romans were at war for 97 of the 102 years from 343 BC through 241 BC, and perhaps for as many as 100, but none of the surviving documents indicate whether the doors were opened or closed during the handful of “peaceful” years. Nor did the Romans know, which is why Velleius Paterculus wrote that the closing by Octavian in 29 BC was only the third on record.

We also don’t know how long the Romans continued the practice of opening and closing the doors of the temple to indicate war or peace. It is interesting to note, however, that Procopius tells us the custom was not abandoned until the advent of Christianity as the state religion. Arguably that could have been any time from the early Fourth Century, when Constantine adopted Christianity, to the early Fifth, when pagan temples were ordered closed. The temple of Janus itself remained closed, but otherwise undamaged for many years after the end of open pagan worship.

Then an odd thing happened.

In AD 535, by which time Rome and Italy had long been in Ostrogothic hands, the Emperor Justinian sent the great Flavius Belisarius to recover Italy for the Empire, initiating the protracted Romano-Gothic War (AD 535-554).

After recovering Sicily for the Empire in 535, in the Spring of 536 Belisarius landed in Italy proper, and on December 9th, having cleared the Goths out of southern Italy, he was welcomed at Rome by the local people as the Gothic garrison fled north. By this time Belisarius’s army, never large to begin with, was greatly outnumbered by the Goths, and he spent the winter of 536-537 putting the city into a state of defense. On March 2, 537, the Gothic King Vitiges invested Rome with about 45,000 troops, outnumbering Belisarius’s regulars by at least four to one, though he also had many untrained volunteers and conscripts. A desperate siege followed, and at one point it looked like the city would be lost. Then, according to Procopius, who was present during the siege,

. . . some of the Romans, I suppose, who had in mind the old belief, attempted secretly to open [the doors of the Temple of Janus],. But they did not succeed entirely, moving the doors only so a little. Those who had attempted to do this escaped detection; and no investigation of the act was made, as was natural in a time of great confusion, since it did not become known to [Belisarius’ subordinate] commanders, nor did it reach the ears of the multitude, except of a very few.

So the last time the Romans honored – or at least attempted to honor – the tradition of opening the doors to the Temple of Janus in war took place some 1,200 years after the custom had been established.


"Yes, My Mother'Bible"

One of the most celebrated actions in the age of fighting sail took place on August 19, 1812, in the North Atlantic about 500 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the 38 gun British frigate Guerriere dueled with the 44 gun American frigate Constitution.

It was essentially a grudge match. The Americans were keen to wipe out numerous insults at the hands of the British, most notably the unprovoked attack in 1807 by HMS Leopard on the USS Chesapeake, and numerous instances of impressment of American seamen by British warships, including the Guerriere herself in May of 1811. The British, in turn, were also looking for a fight, to avenge an attack that same May by the USS President on the greatly outclassed HMS Little Belt, which the American frigate had mistaken for the Guerriere.

After maneuvering against each other for about three hours, at about 5:00 pm the ships began to close and the fight began, ending up slugging it out at about “half pistol shot” distance (i.e., 10-15 yards). Some 90 minutes later, the Guerriere was heavily damaged and the Constitution’s skipper, Capt. Isaac Hull, ceased firing. Hull sent a boat over to the Guerriere under a flag of truce. An officer asked the Guerriere’s skipper, Capt. James R. Dacres, if he was prepared to surrender. Dacres seemed to mulled the question over, “Well, Sir, I don't know,” then said, “Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone – I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag."

At that, enemies no longer, Hull sent boats to take off the Guerriere’s crew and offer assistance to her wounded. When Dacres came aboard Constitution, he offered his sword to Hull, who refused it. Through the night, American sailors attempted to save the British ship, and take her as a prize (as she had, in fact, been taken by the British from the French in 1806), but the effort proved hopeless, so Hull ordered her burned.

Before dispatching a party to torch the Guerriere, Hull asked Dacres if there was anything aboard her that he wished to rescue. Dacres replied, “Yes, my’s mother Bible, which I have carried with me for years.” Hull ordered an officer to secure the Bible, which was returned to Dacres, initiating a lifelong friendship between the two men.


  • Isaac Hull (1773-1843): A veteran of the First Barbary War, in later years Hull commanded the Pacific Squadron, the Washington Navy Yard, and finally the Mediterranean Squadron, rising to the honorary rank of Commodore. Five ships have borne his name in the fleet, most recently the destroyer Hull (DD 945), which entered service in 1958 and was stricken in 1983.
  • James R. Dacres (1788-1853): Scion of a naval family, Dacres, a veteran of the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, later commanded several other ships, including a 74-gun battleship, was later governor of the colony at the Cape of Good Hope, and retired as a vice-admiral.

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